Essex County Council: Sustainable School Travel Design Guide

In 2020, Essex County Council appointed Jacobs and Essex Highways to develop a Sustainable School Travel Design Guide after identifying the need for greater guidance to optimise sustainable design.

The challenge

Streets around schools are often dominated by traffic at peak times – creating hazards and contributing to congestion and pollution. This can make the walk to school feel unsafe at the best of times and discourage more active travel habits. There are lots of ways that routes to school can be improved and more sustainable travel options encouraged, so Essex County Council is leading a project to bring those strategies together in a comprehensive design guide that can be used across the county, as part of their wider Safer, Greener, Healthier initiative.

Current best practice around school travel includes school travel planning initiatives, school streets programmes (immediately outside school entrances), cycle network planning guidance, as well as design for drop-off areas similar to those used in locations like airports. However, there is currently no guidance which captures all that can be achieved through design into one cohesive resource to help decision-makers prioritise travel to school by sustainable modes.

The solution

In 2020, Essex County Council appointed Jacobs and Essex Highways to develop a Sustainable School Travel Design Guide after identifying the need for greater guidance to optimise sustainable design. The principles of this guide have now been published as part of Essex County Council’s Bus Service Improvement Plan and with heightened importance on promoting sustainable travel modes, they will form an important framework for future school design in Essex.

Jacobs led workshops with Essex County Council teams looking at passenger transport, education, sustainable travel, planning, urban design, health and wellbeing and more.

The design guide sets out how a new build school in a new community should be designed to prioritise travel by sustainable modes. The inset below shows the proposed zones and concentric circles around a hypothetical new school, with the order of the zones following the established hierarchy of modes:

  • Zone 1 – School entrance street
  • Zone 2 – Radial walking and cycling routes
  • Zone 3 – Car-free zone (at school start and end times)
  • Zone 4 – Bus stop zone
  • Zone 5 – School drop-off / pick-up areas

The design guide has been developed alongside a wider update on design principles for new communities in Essex. ‘Car-free’ in this guide refers to streets that are either designed for walking and cycling only, or where traffic is restricted at least during school start and finish times in order to ensure safe travel to and from school.

It is envisaged that residents parking a car, either in residential streets or in a nearby car park, would need to follow restrictions on car use at certain times of the day.

The ‘school entrance street’ is expected to be permanently traffic free and designed to improve accessibility and sense of place. The design guide includes a number of best practice design principles for each zone including the school entrance street. The guide recommends a separate traffic entrance for permitted vehicles (including for disabled access, school staff access when required, deliveries, maintenance and emergency services).

Further out from the school, streets will either consist of wide footways on either side of wide cycle paths, or low-speed streets designed primarily for pedestrians and cyclists. Walking and cycling routes should link to key routes beyond the new community and also include some sections that encourage interest, such as low-profile ramps installed similar to those in the WhoopDeeDoo Cycling Project in Vancouver.

To ensure school children can travel safely to and from school, all streets within a defined radius of the school should be traffic-free, at least during school opening and closing times. This prevents school drop-offs and picks-ups by car and other vehicles entering the school vicinity.

Bus stops should be located so that bus routes do not pass too close to schools – 400 to 500 metres (approximately 10 minutes’ walk) is a reasonable walking distance, aiding exercise while reducing air pollution and traffic volumes near schools. Disabled access from bus stops must be ensured, and special needs bus access would be an exception to this exclusion zone.

The initial proposal is for a car-free zone that restricts dropping-off and picking-up to locations 1km from the school (approximately 20 minutes’ walk), but this will be subject to consultation. School admission decisions cannot necessarily be influenced, so some pupils may need to be driven to school. Specific locations at the edge of the car-free zone from all directions around the catchment will allow pupils to be dropped off. And dedicated safe walk and cycle routes will be provided as part of the planned network of radial walk and cycle routes contributing to children’s recommended average of at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a day.

The Sustainable Travel School Design Guide will be first used to steer the design of new-build schools in new communities prioritising sustainable modes. However, when extending to existing communities this would build on the experience in community engagement already built up through Essex County Council's Safer, Greener, Healthier initiative. That engagement has already identified that residents want to see action to tackle speeding, followed by a desire for less traffic overall and for children to be able to play, walk and cycle in their neighbourhood, all areas which match the aims of the School Design Guide.

The impact

As a result, three key principles were established for the design guide – to steer new-build schools in new communities prioritising sustainable modes, as well as other scenarios:

  • encouraging active and sustainable travel to improve the health and wellbeing of young people
  • dispersing school drop-off and pick-up areas to reduce congestion and road danger while increasing exercise opportunities for young people
  • creating a sense of place through a safe and welcoming environment at the school entrance and within the surrounding school neighbourhood.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Jacobs’ work on the design guide builds on continued involvement in pioneering school transport solutions. This includes the recent commission of Travel Service Optimization (TSO) by Kent County Council, a digital cloud-based platform designed by Jacobs to help transform the home-to-school travel experience for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) children and young people.

More details on the Consultation of the Essex County Council School Design Guide Principles, part of a wider Consultation on Essex County Council Bus Service Improvement Plan Objectives, are available at


Tom Beck, [email protected]